My grandmother was from “the old country.” She grew up on a farm in the foot-hills of the mountains of central Italy about an hour drive from Rome. She grew her own vegetables and baked her own bread, and made her own wine in the basement of her home that my father built for her, mostly by hand. I remember when I was a very small boy being down in the wine cellar watching my father hand-turn the steel and wooden grape-press and the juices would flow down the steel funnel and as they did my grandmother would tell him not to spill a drop because it was precious like blood.
I loved the smell and feel of the old wine cellar. I loved how the barrels looked all stacked in rows along the wall and how dark and cool it was there on those hot summer days. It was like a cave. It felt primal, like an ancient home.
Sometimes when my parents would drop me off with my grandmother we sat on the back porch in the early morning coolness, drinking cafe’ latte’ and eating biscotti. We talked about the old country and how rabbits can be evil if they are eating your garden and she asked me to step on the carpenter ants that were eating her porch. Later, as the day grew hotter, we went down into the wine cellar where she turned on her old black and white television and adjusted the rabbit ear antennas so that she could watch her soaps in Spanish. While we sat there my grandmother took two glass tumblers from a shelf and from the barrel or sometimes from a large glass jug she poured two glasses of deep, ruby red wine. After they were poured -almost as if it were a sacred ceremony- she handed me one glass and told me in a conspiratorial whisper, “Here, this isa precious likea blood, and it’sa gooda for you, but you no tella your momma, cause she no understand.” So I took the glass and I drank it and I knew that she was right. I was five years old.
Since then I have always known the power and the beauty of living from the vine. Wine, made as she made it, is not just wine. It is artful, full of tradition, respect, and even acts as religion. Like raising our own vegetables, it connects us to the land and the generations. Like killing a deer and roasting its loins, it teaches us to have respect for what sustains us. Wine, like she made it, brings people together to speak, listen, laugh, and remember; in that moment, we are all connected by blood.
In time…I grew older, but not up. I found myself serving as a Marine at the embassy in Rome not more than an hour drive from my grandmother’s home town. In Rome, I met my wife, Alison. We traveled to tiny villages where we sometimes lived off of the local pasta, bread, and wine. Once, in the hills outside Rome, we could only afford a piece of bread, a piece of cheese and a liter of wine. That was one of the best meals of my life. We had traveled to see the fountains. It rained like God’s tears and it didn’t matter if the water was going up or down because it was all beautiful. That was living. And we had Italian friends named Franco and Carla. They sort of adopted me. On the weekends we would travel to their countryside home. Once there, we would all gather around the fire, laugh, eat and drink cool white wine poured by Franco… oh so carefully. He knew that it was precious.
Later I would sit by a campfire on the African plains in northern Namibia. We looked up at the Southern Cross through the branches of the big tree that had been damaged by elephants. We ate the roasted meat of the game I had shot that day and drank deep, red, rich, African Pinotage. Alison had lived this adventure with me and she understood the value of each moment. I sat there with the thick, wonderful, wood-smoke smell in my nostrils. That was the night Jan, Fred, and I – three warriors sharing thoughts and memoires – talked into the wee hours. Jan and Fred where the professional hunters in camp and they had previously fought against the current government as special operations soldiers. Our trackers, Pete and Johannes, had previously tracked Cuban soldiers through this bush. I remembered those times in my own terrorist wars when Cubans smuggled guns through Ghana and killers from Libya. We drank wine, laughed…and got quiet and distant inside ourselves when we talked of war and of loss. We had each defended our countries under the same African sky. We were brothers of the battle…brother s around the fire and within the blood. It was something precious, and we did not spill a drop.
Now I am home in the Texas Hill Country I love so much. I look toward the hills and wonder how they could look so African? I look toward the vineyards and wonder how they could look so Tuscan? I look toward the smiling eyes of my fellow Texans sipping wine and listening to Texas Swing music and wonder, how life could get any better?
Recently I was visiting my favorite small winery, Sandstone Cellars with my dear friend Nichole, who is a manager at Becker Vineyards, my favorite larger winery. Both wineries understand the passion of wine making. We were sitting with the owners of Sandstone winery, Scott and Manny. We had just had an amazing meal at Manny’s mom’s restaurant next door and were resting under a tree on the porch talking of wine, friendship, art and music as well as gardening, spirituality and life. Nichole and I have been connected by blood for ages but now I know that Scott and Manny are also my brothers. I knew it the first time I walked in and smelled the oaky, musky fragrance of wine being born. It was like being home.
As the years passed on… so did my grand mother. Her name was Dominica. In Italian, this means “Sunday.” I remember how the sun filled her smile as she sipped the first of her new wine. I remember how she taught me that wine could bring people together. Still, I hear her voice, and see her smile each time I walk into a barrel room of a winery and smell that oaky, deep, warm, smell of long ago. And, I’m sure that if there is a heaven, she is there pouring a tumbler of her deep, red, ancient elixir for the Lord. She was a tough old farm girl and will show him no quarter. I’m certain as she pours it she will hand it over carefully and say in her broken Italian accent, “Here…you no spilla drop. This isa precious…like blood. “